(Updates with comment, color from the agriculture minister.)
By Stephen Eisenhammer
LAPA, Brazil, March 21 (Reuters) - Brazil’s federal police and agriculture ministry said late Tuesday that sanitary and corruption problems found in the nation’s meatpacking industry were isolated incidents, an attempt to tamp down a scandal that has led the Latin American nation’s biggest export markets to ban its meats.
Since police launched raids on processing plants and company offices in seven states on Friday, President Michel Temer’s government has sought to downplay the crisis in the meatpacking sector, one of the bright spots of an economy struggling with its worst recession on record.
But Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland all announced partial or all-out bans on Brazilian meat imports on Tuesday, following measures similar to those taken by China, the European Union, South Korea and Chile a day earlier.
South Korea’s ban on all poultry imports from BRF SA , the world’s largest exporter of that meat, was lifted on Tuesday.
BRF and JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company, are among dozens of firms targeted in the police investigation. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing.
China is the largest consumer of Brazilian meat.
“While the investigation by the federal police aims to uncover isolated irregularities in the sanitary inspection system, the facts are directly related to deviations of professional conduct practiced by a few workers,” the joint police and agriculture ministry statement said. “They do not represent a widespread malfunction of the Brazilian system.”
The meat investigation by Brazil’s federal police comes amid a massive three-year investigation into billions of dollars in political kickbacks paid by construction giants to win contracts with state-controlled firms, especially the oil company Petrobras.
That probe has ensnared scores of top politicians, including several ministers in Temer’s center-right government.
Following a two-year investigation of the meatpacking industry, police have accused more than 100 people, mostly health inspectors, of taking bribes for allowing the sale of rancid products, falsifying export documents or failing to inspect meatpacking plants at all.
In a bid to assuage concerns, Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi donned white overalls and a white hood to inspect a poultry plant in Parana state on Tuesday.
The plant is one of 21 mentioned in the police probe that has now been barred from exporting meat, though its poultry is still being sold in Brazil.
Praising standards at the plant, Maggi said the problems identified by police were mostly related to allegations of isolated corruption in the regulatory system and not overall unsanitary processing practices.
“The problem isn’t here at the plant; it’s there in the office where there was a problem with one of our employees,” Maggi said, after inspecting the factory where hundreds of workers cut and sorted chicken fillets along a whirring steel conveyor belt.
Maggi, a billionaire soy producer, criticized the “alarmist” way in which police announced their investigation and asked them to release exact details of the cargoes in which they found evidence of unsanitary product.
“Countries are asking us whether these cargoes might have been sent to them and at the moment we can’t answer them,” he said.
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Lapa, Brazil; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Dominique Patton in Beijing; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker